Unhealthy eating, inactivity, excessive alcohol intake — many wrote these habits off as things everyone experienced early in the pandemic. But two years in, studies show that many of us have made these unhealthy habits our new normal.
“If you have a substance use disorder, for example, the pandemic may have made managing it more challenging,” says Tracy Terpstra, licensed mental health therapist and behavioral health expert for BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, “especially if you never recognized the problem or asked for help. The same is true for people with other mental health disorders, people whose daily routines became more sedentary, or people who skipped doctor’s appointments because of fear of exposure.”
After a while, the deviations become the default, says Terpstra, which is why it’s so important to identify and address them.
“We’re really in the wake of the big wave that was COVID,” he says. “Identifying the unhealthy habits that may still be affecting you is the only way to reset.”
4 unhealthy habits COVID may have caused
While physical activity levels are on the rise, they’ve yet to return to pre-pandemic levels. It’s not surprising — once people get used to being inactive, it’s easier to stay in that pattern than to break out of it. But there may also be other issues at play.
“One thing that’s still unfolding is the impact of long COVID, or ongoing health problems people may experience 4 weeks or more after being infected,” says Terpstra. “It’s estimated that 25% of people who were diagnosed with COVID are experiencing long-COVID symptoms, including decreased lung function, cardiac issues and fatigue. In extreme cases, there are even neurological impairments, strokes or psychosis.”
And that’s just the people who were diagnosed with COVID, says Terpstra. Many more could be feeling these effects without knowing the cause.
“If you’re experiencing fatigue, brain fog, muscle pain or shortness of breath, you may have stopped hiking, running, walking or exercising without even realizing why,” he says. “And while we obviously want to get you back to being active, the first step is treating those symptoms.”
Talk with your primary care provider about your symptoms. Once those are under control, make a plan with your provider to gradually increase your physical activity. Track your progress and touch base often. And, if long COVID isn’t to blame, you may simply need a reset.
Start by learning:
- How to break bad habits
- 6 ways to build good habits, and
- 5 simple ways to build activity into your day.
2. Lack of treatment for chronic conditions
“At the beginning of the pandemic, many doctors had strict guidelines. They closed their waiting rooms, asking patients to wait in the car for a text to come in,” says Terpstra. “That made getting care feel more complicated, which caused some people to avoid it altogether. Now, two years later, it’s time to get back in the habit of scheduling those appointments.”
Talk to your providers about:
- Blood pressure
- Cancer screenings (colon, lung, prostate, skin)
- Annual appointments (OB/GYN, physicals)
- Eye health
- Mental health
For mental health in particular, now is also a good time to evaluate whether you’re getting the kind of help you need, says Terpstra.
“Telehealth therapy is great for some conditions, and it’s certainly better than no therapy at all,” says Terpstra. “But if a person has issues with social anxiety, isolation or depression, the exact opposite needs to be happening. They need to be exposed to social situations, including in-person therapy. It’s good to be thoughtful about what’s best treated virtually versus in person.”
3. Increased substance use
During the months after COVID began, there was a 50% increase in the number of people who said they drank to cope. And while those numbers dipped soon after, alcohol sales remain higher than they were before the pandemic.
That makes now a good time to check in on our own substance use, says Terpstra, whether you’re using alcohol or another substance.
“In Tennessee, substance use has increased, and especially the misuse of opioids,” says Terpstra. “Fentanyl — an illegal opioid that’s up to 100 times more potent than morphine — is flooding the streets and being laced with other compounds. That creates higher overdose rates and hospital admissions. It’s so potent that even handling it can be dangerous.”
Check in on your drinking:
Learn more about opioid use:
If you’re unsure of where you stand or just need someone to talk to, call the National Helpline of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
4. Unhealthy eating habits
At the start of the pandemic, many of us turned to food for comfort. However, studies show that 47% of adults say they’re still eating more now than they did pre-pandemic.
“The human brain is organized around survival,” says Terpstra. “When people are in high-stress situations, the brain triggers comforting, self-soothing strategies. And that includes a desire for high-fat and high-carbohydrate foods. And if you never found another way to cope with that stress, you may still be on the path of unhealthy eating today.”
Over time, unhealthy eating can lead to an increase in:
- Metabolic disorders
To remedy this, take a look at the role the pandemic played in your own diet, and use these 7 tips to get back on track. And remember — not everything that came out of the pandemic was bad.
“It’s actually a good thing that we’re now paying better attention to handwashing and hygiene,” says Terpstra. “After all, those behaviors are what led to unprecedented lows in flu cases and deaths over the past few years. I think many stores, restaurants and offices will continue to offer sanitizer and social distancing, and we can all take advantage of that. And keep up the good handwashing!”
BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee members can access wellness-related discounts on fitness products, gym memberships, healthy eating and more through Blue365®. BCBST members can also use tools and resources to help improve health and well-being by logging into BlueAccess and going to the in the Member Wellness Center under the Managing Your Health tab.